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Please Don't Give Soy Milk To Your Baby
Craig Weatherby

Baby's Death Highlights Vegan Docs' Distortions Tragic incident casts light on zealot doctors'disingenuous claims and moral arrogance.

The word "tragedy" is often misused in reference to any and all deeply sorrowful events, regardless of the circumstances.

The term comes from ancient Greece , where a tragedy was a drama in which a protagonist suffered downfall or destruction through a flaw of character or a fateful conflict with the gods.

Serious misfortunes resulting from straightforward accidents, illness, or natural disasters can certainly be very sad, but they're not specifically tragic.

The 2004 incident in which the infant son born to a vegan couple starved to death - which led to their recent murder conviction in Atlanta - seems tragic in the truest sense.

Vegans are the strictest variety of vegetarian, and will eat no meat, dairy, or animal products, including milk and eggs. Unlike vegans, so-called "lacto-ovo" vegetarians will eat milk (lacto) products and eggs (ovo). Worldwide, most vegetarians fall into this more moderate category.

The tragic 2004 incident in Atlanta - which echoes similar deaths in recent years - provides an opportunity to raise awareness of infants' specific nutritional requirements, and to address some distortions perpetrated by medical doctors who double as zealous advocates of vegan diets.

Vegan diets are viable if nutritionally tricky options for informed adults, but reckless application of these all-plant regimens can put infants at risk.

Crown Shakur's tragic death
On May 9 of this year, Jade Sanders, aged 27, and Lamont Thomas, aged 31 were sentenced to life in prison for the death of their malnourished 6-week-old baby boy, who was fed a diet consisting largely of soy milk and apple juice.

A jury found the couple guilty of malice murder, felony murder, involuntary manslaughter and cruelty to children.

The boy, named Crown Shakur, weighed just 3½ pounds when he died of starvation on April 25, 2004.

The baby was born at home, and defense lawyers said that Sanders and Thomas did not realize the baby was in danger. But the boy was so emaciated when finally brought into the hospital - located just across the street from his Atlanta home - that doctors could count his bones through his skin.

His parents' negligence should not be misused to tar all vegan mothers and fathers, most of whom are eager to meet their infants' nutritional needs, which cannot be supplied by soy milk and apple juice.

In fact, the Atlanta prosecutor did not blame Crown Shakur's parents' vegan philosophy for the boy's death. Instead, he argued to the jury that the couple neglected and underfed the child for unknown reasons, and tried to use their quasi-religious approach to diet as a shield. (The parents' defense bore similarities to the religious-rights argument often used by Christian Science adherents accused of fatally neglecting children's medical needs in favor of prayer.)

The Atlanta conviction follows two other convictions of vegan parents found guilty of the deaths of vegan babies, in New York and Florida.

In 1990, the US FDA investigated after a two-month old girl in California was hospitalized with severe malnutrition. Her parents had fed her soy milk instead of infant formula. Because of this and a similar incident in Arkansas , the FDA issued a warning on June 13, 1990. Since then, most brands of soy milk include small warning labels.

The widespread perception of soy products as "health foods" seems to have led some parents - particularly vegans - to mistakenly believe that soy milk is a nourishing food for babies and children.

But unlike soy-based infant formulas, most soy milks - like the brand given to baby Crown Shakur - does not contain added B-1 or other nutrients essential to infants.

The subject of soy's exaggerated reputation as a highly healthful food is too complex to address here. Suffice it to say that while whole soy foods such as tofu seem to offer some preventive health benefits, soy foods can block absorption of some nutrients.

While adult vegans can survive - and some may thrive - on their diets, most take supplements to get nutrients scarce in plant foods, such as vitamins B12 and D3 (a form proven superior to the vitamin D2 found in plants).

But the risk of nutritional error to vegan-fed infants is substantially greater because of their vulnerable status and special needs.

Vegan-diet advocates ignore inconvenient truths Vital Choice friend and acclaimed food writer Nina Planck penned an opinion piece about the recent tragedy, which appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times, May 21, 2007. Nina Planck is the author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why, which offers an excellent, engaging examination of the time-tested and increasingly validated preventive health value of traditional diets.

As she wrote, "This particular calamity - at least the third such conviction of vegan parents in four years - may be largely due to ignorance. But it should prompt frank discussion about nutrition. I was once a vegan. But well before I became pregnant, I concluded that a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible. You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants."

She went on to say, "Indigenous cuisines offer clues about what humans, naturally omnivorous, need to survive, reproduce and grow: traditional vegetarian diets, as in India , invariably include dairy and eggs for complete protein, essential fats and vitamins. There are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long run."

The following quotes from Nina Planck's op-ed essay in The New York Times reveals some of the inconvenient truths underlying the Crown Shakur starvation tragedy. (We added clarifying comments in brackets []):

"An adult who was well-nourished in utero and in infancy may choose to get by on a vegan diet, but babies are built from protein, calcium, cholesterol and fish oil [omega-3 DHA]. Children fed only plants will not get the precious things they need to live and grow." "Responsible vegan parents know that breast milk is ideal. It contains many necessary components, including cholesterol (which babies use to make nerve cells), [omega-3 DHA] and countless immune and growth factors." "[However, s]tudies show that vegan breast milk lacks enough docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, the omega-3 fat found in fatty fish." "A vegan diet is equally dangerous for weaned babies and toddlers, who need plenty of protein and calcium. Too often, vegans turn to soy, which actually inhibits growth and reduces absorption of protein and minerals." "Humans prefer animal proteins and fats to cereals and tubers, because they contain all the essential amino acids needed for life in the right ratio. This is not true of plant proteins, which are inferior in quantity and quality - even soy." And as Nina writes on her web site, in regard to her Times essay, "Among many sources for this piece, I interviewed a family practitioner who treats many vegetarian and vegan families. The doctor's comments were useful but too long for the Times. Here they are:

'The most significant issue with vegan infants is growth. I have seen cases of severe anemia and protein deficiency in vegan infants resulting in hospitalization and blood transfusion. Most breast-fed vegan children will do okay until solids are introduced, as long as the vegan mother is well nourished. Most commonly you see Vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies in vegan children.'

'Vegan families must pay close attention to protein sources, calcium, vitamins D and B12, and iron. Often this can be achieved via fortified foods, but I've seen that not all vegan parents want to choose these types of foods. Most vegan families I've met don't understand the importance of fat intake in the cognitive development of the baby.'

Vegan docs' distortions regarding dietary fats The last point raised by Nina Planck's physician-informant stems from ongoing research that continues to strengthen the case for fish as a very smart part of maternal diets. (To read about some of it, search our newsletter archive for "children".)

Fatty fish like salmon, sablefish, and sardines earned their ancient reputation as brain food for sound scientific reasons.